The opioid crisis has been at the center of a wave of media lately, from the true-crime mini-series The Crime of the Century to the Oscar-nominated documentary All the Beauty and the Bloodshed to star-studded series like Hulu’s Dopesick. Netflix alone is unfurling three opioid-focused entries in this year’s latter half, beginning with the Peter Berg-helmed drama series PainKiller. Horror director Mike Flanagan is reinterpreting the works of Edgar Allan Poe to comment on the millions made off of human pain with his upcoming The Fall of the House of Usher. And David Yates, best known for helming a string of Harry Potter movies, is offering a darkly comedic spin on the subject with Pain Hustlers.
Through such media, pill pushers — be they drug reps, overprescribing doctors, or the ultra-wealthy execs funding the production of addictive pharmaceuticals — have become an understood villain, feeding off the American Dream to their own selfish ends. In Pain Hustlers, Yates charts their journey of rags to riches to ruin like a gangster tale. At times, it’s a fitting comparison, but this filmmaker doesn’t have the grit to commit to the bit.
What’s Pain Hustlers about?
Based on Evan Hughes’s nonfiction book Pain Hustlers: Crime and Punishment at an Opioid Startup, this Netflix offering centers not on the notorious Sacklers — who have been the dark inspiration for several of the above productions — but the crimes of Insys Therapeutics, a real-life company that produced a fast-acting form of fentanyl. The screenplay by Wells Tower takes a lot of liberties with the original story, changing the names and combining various real-life reps into a convenient composite to center his story around.
For instance, Insys Therapeutics CEO, Indian billionaire John Kapoor, becomes Zana CEO, Jack Neel (Andy Garcia), a warm widower with a tragic backstory and an eccentric streak. Working under him is swaggering salesman Pete Brenner (Chris Evans in a sleazy goatee, leaning into his Boston accent with relish), and under him, newbie sales rep Liza Drake (Emily Blunt with a too-crisp American accent).
Together this trio — with a squad of ambitious and flirtatious reps — will lead Zana to outrageous sales, thanks to the help of some shady doctors, including one played by the always excellent Brian d’Arcy James. But how long can their rise last?
Pain Hustlers doesn’t have the bravado to be Goodfellas.
Martin Scorsese has defined how we think about the modern gangster in films from Goodfellas to Casino, The Irishman to The Wolf of Wall Street. In each, he introduces us to a character who might be seen as a villain to outsiders, but who has a debonair charm that can’t help but compel us as they chase down the American Dream at all costs. The legendary American filmmaker invites audiences to empathize with these exciting antiheroes through their lavish displays of enviable wealth and opening lines like “As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a gangster.” Yates is not so bold.
Instead, the English helmer begins his crime drama in the crouch of an apology. Various characters are set up in a documentary interview setting, essentially being shamed before their story has even begun. The movie’s protagonist, Eliza Drake, will not appear in this space, not yet. Rather, she’ll be introduced as a single mom so devoted to her child that she’ll work as a stripper to feed her teen daughter (Dungeons and Dragons: Honor Among Thieves‘ Chloe Coleman).
Throughout the film, such sex work is made an easy joke and a source of shame for Liza and the other reps who once favored a pole over a pill to pay their bills. Moving from fishnets to power suits seems to be Yates’s way of swiftly communicating the draw of diving into selling a known-to-be deadly opioid. But just in case you might judge Liza’s professional choices, Tower’s script gives her kid a costly medical condition as justification. After all, what wouldn’t a mom do to save her child? Who could blame her?
It’s a boring storytelling choice that feels vaguely sexist. Sure, men in crime movies get to be motivated by ego and the desire to have so much money or power that no one can fuck with you. YOU are the one who knocks! But if it’s a woman, she must have some righteous center to her reasoning, like loyalty to an ailing child. While this might be meant to make Liza more likable or relatable, it actually insults the audience, suggesting we don’t have the emotional intelligence to understand the allure of money and power — even if it’s essentially blood money.
Yates and Tower loosely align their structure to that of a gangster film, even interjecting these tedious interview setups where Scorsese would use a smirking voiceover. Like a Scorsese gangster, Liza has a humble background, but is street-smart, daring, and charismatic, allowing her to outwit those who would underestimate her. Yet rather than showing her as a scrappy survivor who got caught up in her own hubris or greed, Pain Hustlers takes pains to wedge her into the role of victim of impossible circumstances. She’s not a rat out to save her own skin, she’s a noble whistleblower out to save the life of her child!
It’s a cowardly compromise that aims to make this movie perhaps more crowd-pleasing, keeping the beloved Blunt out of villain terrain. But it also makes the film’s final act groan-inducing.
Pain Hustlers misses the mark.
While the script turns insipid, the cast is solid. Blunt comfortably shoulders the plot and much exposition, while even getting an occasional punchline. Evans is a treat, once more relishing in the role of a douchebag — as he did beautifully in Knives Out and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Garcia is a wry delight as his billionaire breaks down into paranoia and blithe skinny-dipping. Catherine O’Hara is an expected hoot as a mom who can be unapologetically too much. And despite my issues with this film, I might well watch it again just to enjoy Brian d’Arcy James, a superb character actor who makes mesmerizing magic of his transformation from schlubby doctor to mid-life crisis superstar — complete with leather pants, hair plugs, and a mesh shirt that seems stolen from a figure skater.
To Yates’s credit, Pain Hustlers moves nicely, paced like Scorsese’s relentless The Wolf of Wall Street, but nearly an hour shorter. It doesn’t outstay its welcome, but neither does it challenge its audience. From the first sequence. Liza is surrounded by pill pushers more obviously malignant than her. She’s snarled at by family, co-workers, and just about everyone she comes across, save the doctors she woos with homemade pie and small talk. In that, there is a seed that might have been fostered to grow a compelling story about how being good at a bad thing still feels good! Yates doesn’t endeavor to get so clever.
In the end, Pain Hustlers might be enlightening to those who haven’t seen any of the above drug-centered docs and dramas, giving a crash course on the shady games that go behind overprescribing a highly addictive and deadly drug to the masses. But it’s far from great cinema, or even interesting.
Pain Hustlers was reviewed out of its world premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival; the movie opens in select theaters in the U.S. on Oct. 20, then will debut on Netflix on Oct. 27.